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Can Fish Oil Heal the Brain?; "I Love My Husband & Children More Than My Chest"

Aired October 20, 2012 - 16:30   ET


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, HOST: Hey there, and thanks for being with us.

Today, an extreme step to stop breast cancer. One woman is going to explain why she did what she did.

Also, food for life. I like this one. A new reason why you may want to think about eating more tomatoes.

But first, an incredible use for fish oil, the extent to which even surprised me.

You know, every year, about 1.7 million people in the United States suffer traumatic brain injuries. I see it every day in my line of work. And in severe cases, there is no drug, there is no pill, there's really no intervention that can truly help once the damage sets in.

But I'm about to tell you a story about two dramatic cases of crippling brain damage that may have, in fact, been reversed by a change in nutrition, something so simple again and it's hard to believe -- fish oil.


GUPTA (voice-over): Bobby Ghassemi story begins almost three years ago, with a phone call.

PETER GHASSEMI, BOBBY'S FATHER: Toughest call that any parents can get.

GUPTA: It's about your son, there has been an accident. Come quick.

P. GHASSEMI: I told my younger brother, to hold his hand until I get there.

GUPTA: Bobby's car had careened off a dark and winding road. Paramedics assess the wreckage and Bobby.

DR. MICHAEL LEWIS, BRAIN HEALTH EDUCATION & RESEARCH INSTITUTE: When I'm looking at the reports, they report a Glasgow Coma score of three. A brick or a piece of wood has a Glasgow Coma score of three. It's dead.

And somehow, the paramedics miraculously managed to revive this kid.

GUPTA: This was the scene when his parents finally arrived to Bobby's bedside.

P. GHASSEMI: You realize that he could be going any time.

GUPTA: There had been so much bleeding within the brain, his skull could not contain the swelling. Every part of his brain was affected. But Peter and Marjan Ghassemi shrugged off the horror of the situation to fight.

MARJAN GHASSEMI, BOBBY'S MOTHER: (INAUDIBLE) during the whole time that he was in coma, to fight your way, and you come back to us.

GUPTA: Little did they know that that fight would link them to the sole survivor of an infamous mining disaster.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, 13 coal miners trapped nearly two miles inside a West Virginia mine.

GUPTA: A few years before Bobby's car barreled off that road, 13 miners huddled together after an explosion, as deadly carbon monoxide crept into the airspace around them. Forty-one hours later --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The only confirmed survivor is Randal L. McCloy, Jr.

GUPTA: Dr. Julian Bailes was Randy McCloy's surgeon.

DR. JULIAN BAILES, CO-DIRECTOR, NORTHSHORE NEUROLOGICAL INSTITUTE: He'd had a massive heart attack from carbon monoxide and methane poisoning. He was in liver failure, kidney failure, had a collapsed lung.

GUPTA: McCloy's body somehow recovered. The question was, would his brain do the same?

(on camera): Can you quantify the likelihood that someone like a Randal McCloy would recover, that he would have a meaningful neurological recovery?

BAILES: We felt, and I think everything since then supports the fact that he was truly a long shot.

GUPTA (voice-over): But Bailes was concocting an unorthodox plan to try and save Randy McCloy's brain. High doses of omega 3 fatty acids, fish oil.

BAILES: So the concept was then to try to rebuild his brain from what he was made from when he was an embryo in his mother's womb.

GUPTA (on camera): Rebuild his brain?

BAILES: Yes. We gave him a very high, unprecedented dose, to make sure we saturated and got high levels in the brain.

GUPTA: Had that even been done before, to your knowledge?

BAILES: No, it had not. GUPTA (voice-over): Bailes was going out in a limb, but he had a hunch. In other studies, omega 3 seemed to restore balance in the brain, helping some patients with depression or suicidal thoughts. Could an injured brain be similarly restored? And if so, how?

LEWIS: If you have a brick wall and it gets damaged, would you want to use bricks to repair the wall? And omega 3 fatty acids are literally the bricks of the cell wall in the brain.

GUPTA: During a traumatic brain injury, the brain swells and nerve cells stop communicating and die. Omega 3 fatty acid, theory goes, can rebuild damaged nerve cells, reduce inflammation, keep those brain cells from dying.

The problem? Few human studies had proven this theory.

Ten days after his accident, Bobby Ghassemi was still in a coma.

M. GHASSEMI: If he ever comes out of the coma, we don't know what kind of shape he is going to be in. And it was really hard to hear that, OK, he lived. He survived. And then now, what?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So they saved his life, but we don't have anything that helps from that point forward.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And I would love to have you on the show.

GUPTA: Dr. Michael Lewis, a former Army colonel and Omega 3 researcher, believes fish oil could be the missing link.

LEWIS: Ultimately, we need to get it in the scientific literature by doing the good science in the studies to prove it.

GUPTA: After Bobby's accident, he got a desperate call from Peter Ghassemi, and after some explaining, asked him.

LEWIS: What do you think about the idea of using high dose fish oil like Julian Bailes used with Randy McCloy?

RANDAL MCCLOY, MINE DISASTER SURVIVOR: The carbon monoxide level was really high I had no explanation of how I escaped it.

GUPTA: But McCloy, whose recovery is well-known, was just one case, and it remains unclear whether omega 3 was really the key.

The next hurdle for Ghassemi? Convincing Bobby's doctors.

P. GHASSEMI: It was a fight, they didn't believe. And they said, fine, West Virginia miner was one case. I need a thousand cases to be proven for me before I can give this to your son.

LEWIS: He literally had to lay down in the middle of the floor and throw a tantrum until they started to put it down -- his child's feeding tube.

GUPTA: The tantrum worked. And two weeks after starting his fish oil regimen, Bobby Ghassemi, case study number two, began to emerge from his coma.

About two months after that, he attended his high school graduation.

BOBBY GHASSEMI, RECOVERING FROM TRAUMATIC BRAIN INJURY: They all stood up, screaming and cheering my name. I took my graduation cap off, and waved it around.

GUPTA: The common numbers for Ghassemi and McCloy, devastating brain injuries, and then omega 3 fish oil.

But did the omega 3 hasten their recovery? For now, we do not know.

LEWIS: I absolutely believe that it made a huge difference in Bobby's recovery. And this is pure speculation. He never would have come out of a coma if it had not been for the use of the omega 3's to allow that natural healing process to occur.

GUPTA: Bailes and Lewis became paid consultants to fish oil companies after treating McCloy and Ghassemi. Since then, they have seen omega 3 worked in similar cases. And they believe, taken daily, it could form a lubricant, as they call it, against future brain injury.

(on camera): Is this a big deal to you?

BAILES: It is a big deal, there is no known solution. There is no known drug. There is nothing that we have really to offer these sorts of patients.


GUPTA: It's a really fascinating stuff. But it is still very early, as well. Dr. Lewis says the next step is a large clinical scale trial to see if they can reproduce those benefits. It's also worth nothing this, you really can't overdose. There are virtually no side effects from taking fish oil.

We've got lots more to come, including this scenario -- you're at risk for cancer. So what do you do? Next up, the story of a healthy woman who didn't like her odds of developing breast cancer.


GUPTA: You know, the National Cancer Institute protects nearly 227,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, and nearly 40,000 will die. It's -- these are tough numbers to think about. And Allison Gilbert knows them well. She lost her mother, her aunt, her grandmother all to breast or ovarian cancer.

She's now the author of this book, "Parentless Parents: How the Loss of Our Mothers and Fathers Impacts the Way that We Raised Our Children."

And Allison joins me now from New York, along with her surgeon, Dr. Mark Smith, who performed a preventive mastectomy on Allison this summer.

Thanks so much, both of you, for joining us.



GUPTA: Allison, I read the column that you wrote recently. It was quite striking, and I just wanted to share the opening of it with our audience. It says, "I'm not a helicopter parent and my children would tell you that I don't bake cupcakes for their birthday parties. But I'd readily cut off my breasts for them -- and recently -- I did."

Again, it captures your attention. Can you give us a little bit of a story on what you meant by that?

GILBERT: Well, my kids are young. They're 10 and 12, and I want to be around as long as possible for them. And I grew up as an older person. But certainly, I feel like I've grown up as an adult without my mom and dad. And I didn't want my kids to have to go through that. I want to be around for the day that they get married, when they graduate even high school before that.

And I thought the writing was on the wall with my family history. Also, because I tested positive for what we know as the BRCA gene, this mutation in my genetic code, that would make a lot more likely to develop breast cancer in my lifetime. So I wanted to do something about it.

GUPTA: Yes, I think about that, what you just mentioned all the time. I have three young children myself. It's a very powerful motivator to take care of yourself.

And let me mention, Allison, you already this. But a mutation in BRCA or breast cancer gene means a woman's chance of developing breast cancer is much higher. And people may not know this, but the same mutations can also lead to ovarian cancer, which is the same sort of disease in different parts of your body.

In fact, quickly, take a look at the numbers. Patients with BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations have a 50 percent or 85 percent lifetime risk of developing breast cancers and up to 60 percent lifetime risk of ovarian cancer, compared as you can see there, with 13 percent and 1.7 percent in the general population.

Dr. Smith, we have been reporting on this for a long time. I mean, this is your area of expertise, who do you say should be tested and how reliable are the numbers you just heard?

SMITH: Well, Sanjay, I'm actually a reconstructive surgeon that takes care of a lot of breast cancer patients. So, I work with a breast surgeon who often will counsel the patients on whether they are at high risk. But basically, the patients who have a very strong family history or certainly if another member of their family tests positive for the gene, they would be considered for genetic testing.

In addition, having cancer at a young age or the history of ovarian cancer in the family, those are things that are certain flags that someone may have a higher risk to have a genetic pre-disposition for breast cancer.

GUPTA: Yes. And this maybe just -- you know, personal sort of question, a question that individuals will answer differently, Dr. Smith, but who should consider a bilateral prophylactic mastectomy, then, based on the numbers that people will hear?

SMITH: Well, the NCCN, the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, has guidelines on this type of thing, in terms of recommendations. Primarily, they recommend if you have BRCA mutations to consider it, if your family history is very strong, even if you don't have a BRCA mutation, you might consider it, because we don't necessarily know all the genes that caused breast cancer.

GUPTA: You know, one thing, Allison, I want to point again, our audience may realize this, but the overwhelming majority of women who develop breast cancer don't have a family history of the disease. They are the family history. They become that.

GILBERT: But for me, I feel like my stop watch has been reset to zero. I feel like my life is ahead of me now, and then with my risk now, I think it's only 1 percent breast cancer risk now lower than the general population. Now I can work with my diet and with exercise program and really give myself the fighting chance that what happened to my mom and my aunt and my father, who died of cancer, too, and my grandmother, won't happen to me. I could be around for my kids.

GUPTA: It's a remarkable story, and I love that -- hitting the reset button. We should all do that. I think people are really going to enjoy this conversation.

Allison Gilbert, Dr. Mark Smith, thanks so much for joining us.

GILBERT: Thank you.

SMITH: Thank you.

GUPTA: Coming up, the astronaut who did the first triathlon in space, she raced against me, wearing my number no less, is next.


GUPTA: You know, this fruit can actually help to protect your brain. It's true. Tomatoes get their rich red color from the antioxidant called lycopene. And there's this recent study that found that adding more lycopene to your diet could decrease your risk of having stroke, since the anti-oxidant act like the sort of sponge and they soak up these free radicals that can damage brain cells.

Here's something interesting as well, cooking your tomatoes can actually boost their brain protecting power. So get some tomatoes in your salad, some red sauce into your pasta, that's food for life.

Now, one of the neatest parts of competing in the Nautica Malibu Triathlon last month was also racing my friend and NASA astronaut Suni Williams as she orbited the Earth, some 250 miles high in the sky, traveling at a speed of nearly 18,000 miles an hour. Now, while I was on the road recently, I had a chance to catch up with Sunny and talk about that race.


GUPTA: It's absolutely amazing, I think about you every time I look into the sky.

But I want to start off, Commander, by just congratulating you for doing what we believe is the world's first triathlon in space. Congratulations.

SUNITA WILLIAMS, COMMANDER, ISS EXPEDITION 33: Thank you, you know, when we met a little while ago I was feeling good because I was on the ground practicing, running, biking, swimming and feeling real good about it.

And then after coming up here, your body starts to change. And I was thinking I may have second thoughts about this triathlon thing. But I worked out for a while leading up to it and felt pretty good doing it up here, too. So thank you for the congratulations.

GUPTA: How about the food -- overall, we spent a lot of time talking about the food. Are you getting the types of food you want up there?

WILLIAMS: Yes. Actually, there is a lot of food up here. You know, maybe it's because me and Aki and Yuri are a little bit smaller than the crews beforehand. But I'm finding there's a lot of food. There's a really good selection.

We also have bonus containers, which are provided, maybe about six to nine of them per increment, per -- of your specific things that you like. And knowing that we're coming up here, there are some outstanding issues, high sodium, bone density, muscle loss, we get with a nutritionist before we come and sort of understand what foods are good for you.

And so, in the bonus containers, as well as the other food containers, you can sort of pick out, because we have about a 16-day cycle. You can pick out the foods that you like, first of all. And then second of all, which are nutritious and good for you.

So I have been eating a lot of fish, a lot of nuts, as well as doing controlled diets, so we can do some comparison, so we can get some really good data for future explorations.

GUPTA: Well, thank you so much. You know, I have to say again, Suni, since we met, every time I look in the sky, I think about you and I think about you up there doing all of this important work. I must say, I think we should do a triathlon together now at some point. And while it would be easier for you to come to Earth and for us to do it together on Earth, I was thinking if you could somehow arranged that I'd do it up there with you at the International Space Station, that would be even better. You think you can make that happen?

WILLIAMS: We'll talk about it when I get back at the triathlon that we do on Earth, and we'll see when the next people will be coming up to the space station. You know, people ask me all the time, what do you think about -- you know, when will normal people or the general people be able to come up to space? And, you know, everything that we're doing up here, all the research that we're doing up here is one step closer and closer and closer.

So I really do hope that in our lifetime, we'll see a lot of people coming into space. I think I've said it before -- everyone needs to take a lap around the planet. It would change your perspective and it's a beautiful -- beautiful place we live.

GUPTA: Consider me a fan; I'd love to be that sometime. But just good luck, be safe up there, hope to see you back soon.

WILLIAMS: Absolutely, thanks again for calling. Thanks for your interest in the space program.


GUPTA: I'll tell you what, I'm still hoping for the re-match, maybe in space.

And you know what? This is a good time to announce that our Fit Nation triathlon challenge is coming back for 2013. You remember that nine months ago, we picked a group of everyday viewers, just like you, who wanted to make a change in their lives. I was calling it hitting the reset button and it works. I did it myself. I think I'm probably younger biologically than I was about three years ago.

So, we hooked these guys up with bikes and wet suits, and trainers, also three all expense paid training trips. And just a few weeks ago, you saw all of them cross the finish line at the Nautica Malibu Triathlon.

So, if you're up to a challenge, you can go to our Web site right now,, and learn how to make and submit that video. I'm going to watch it with our producers and hopefully you can be a part of next year's challenge.

And don't go anywhere just yet. Last week, our chasing life tip was for the ladies. Well, this one, is for the fellas this week. So stick around. It could very well save your life.


GUPTA: Have a question for the men, when was the last time you saw your doctor as part of a check-up? According to one government study, men are 25 percent less likely to see a doctor, and as a result, they're more likely to face health problems. It makes sense.

And I'll tell you, black men have some unique risk. They are more likely to die from prostate cancer, from heart disease, from diabetes.

So, this weekend in Philly, national radio personality Tom Joyner is shouting a message loud and clear -- take a loved one to the doctor. He set up a clinic, and thousands of men can stop by for free screenings, lectures, cooking demos, and much more. And Tom is going to join me here in the studio next week, tell us how it went. But in the meantime, if you're a guy watching the show today and it's been a while since you've seen your doctor, pick up the phone, do it this week. Make an appointment.

That's going to wrap things up for SGMD. But you can stay connected with me at Let's keep the conversation going on Twitter, @SanjayGuptaCNN.

Time now, though, to get your check of your top stories making news right now.